The Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus) is a skulking, furtive member of the same bird family as Coot and Moorhen. The latter is quite often see on the becks at St Nicks, Coots almost never and the same for Water Rail until..
..on the 3rd December 2014, a solitary member of the Wildwatch team was standing at the Kingfisher Culvert overlooking Tang Hall Beck when she heard an unusual bird call on the right hand side of the beck. The bird then flew over to the left-hand bank, where she managed to get an indistinct photo on her small camera. She thought she knew what it was but, until her photo was greatly enhanced, she wasn’t certain. But she was right – it was a Water Rail – the first record for St Nicks!
It wasn’t seen at all during the month of January 2015, but then it reappeared on Osbaldwick Beck on the 4th February. It was then seen on the first three Wildwatch Wednesdays in March, with better photographs being obtained. It was finally seen on 1st April 2015. It favoured the Bramble tangles on the Northern side of the beck.
There were no sightings over the winter of 2015/16 but on the 3rd October 2016, a Water Rail was seen by Jonathan, St Nicks Reserve Manager, in the same location on Osbaldwick Beck. It was sighted and photographed by the Wildwatch team on the 23rd and 30th November, seen on all four Wildwatch Wednesdays in December and, at the time of writing, was seen again on the 11th, 18th and 25th January 2017, always frequenting the same Bramble patches on Osbaldwick Beck.
Was it the same bird in 2016/2017 that was seen in 2014/2015? We have no way of knowing, but both sightings were of adult birds, and Water Rails are mainly sedentary – they don’t often migrate or move far (although there is an influx in the winter of Water Rails from continental Europe).
So, what are your chances of seeing a Water Rail at St Nicks and how do you identify it? Well, head down to the Bramble clumps along the right-hand side of Osbaldwick Beck (coming from the Environment Centre) – around noon, strangely enough seems the best time – and wait patiently. It’s probably better to find a vantage point not too close to the second bramble tangle.
Sometimes the bird will emerge to feed and drink by the beck, but often all you see is a glimpse through the Bramble tangles of a long red beak or its distinctive barred flanks. The first sighting back in 2014 was the only time anyone has heard the Water Rail call at St Nicks, but if you do hear it, it’s unmistakable.. a discontented pig-like squeal (called “sharming”) – listen to it here.
We hope you are fortunate enough to see this furtive bird. And if you don’t see it this winter, well, it might appear next winter!
All photos were taken at St Nicks.